Pierre Tonachel earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and is an artist in New York City. In this excerpt from Postwar Cornell, he remembers students who were passionate about jazz, drinking, and fooling around.
My older brother and I were crazy about jazz and big bands. We lived in Staten Island, so we’d ride the ferry and then take the subway all the way up to Harlem to go to the Apollo Theater. We’d see Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and they would play on and on. The audience there was just wild. My older brother was 12, and I was 9. We were these two little white faces in a sea of black faces, and we just kind of fell into it. Nobody seemed to be concerned that we were there. In those days, people didn’t pay much attention to what you were doing.
I got to Cornell in 1948. I quickly became involved with the student radio station, WVBR, and also with the Cornell Rhythm Club, which booked jazz artists. In November of that year, Dizzy Gillespie came to play at Bailey Hall. I heard that the band was staying at a place called Watermargin, so I went there after the show.
Two things struck me immediately when I got there. One was the diversity. I think half the black students at Cornell belonged to Watermargin. The other was that this was not an ordinary frat house party where you got as drunk as you could. Everyone was talking, and the students were talking to the musicians about the music. These were my people. We were all interested in the music. The band was staying there because that was the only place in town they felt comfortable.
Larry Cunningham didn’t belong to Watermargin, but he was part of that community, and we became friends. He was a fascinating figure. Larry’s father was a well-connected lawyer from Boston, and they lived in a house that was simple but very elegant. After dinner, the family would take out their instruments and play chamber music. This was where Larry came from, and I think he rebelled against it.
He was not a wild man. He was older than we were because he had been in the army. He was also quite attractive and intelligent. He had a great appetite for the things he liked. He liked women, and he liked cars, so he drove the women and the cars as hard as he could. But Larry wasn’t focused on getting a degree, not at all. If you don’t go to class, whether or not you’re hung over or you’re shacked up with a girl, it doesn’t really matter—you’re not going to pass. I think Larry may have understood that there was enough family money that he didn’t need a career.
Anyway, we were just fascinated by him, because he was like a character out of Fitzgerald. These big old cars that we drove—we drove them because they reminded us of The Great Gatsby.